Many years ago, before Nick was born, I received a lesson in patience I’ve never forgotten.
My mother had bought a new refrigerator and proposed to give me her old one. I was ready. Nora had just moved in and the one we had, fine for a single guy, was now too small.
“I know of a man who moves refrigerators,” my mother said. “He’s supposed to be nice. He doesn’t charge much.”
“Fine by me,” I said.
The man’s name was Mr. Tolliver. I called him to make an appointment.
“Are there any special problems?” he said.
“No,” I said.
On the appointed day, Mr. Tolliver arrived at our house with my mother’s refrigerator in his flatbed truck. The Salvation Army had come for our old, too-small refrigerator the day before.
Mr. Tolliver was an African-American man with a placid demeanor and a considered manner of speech. Though large and well-muscled, you could imagine him cradling a baby. Mr. Tolliver brought his son with him, a boy about nine, Nick’s age now.
“I hope you don’t mind,” said Mr. Tolliver.
“Not at all,” I said.
Mr. Tolliver looked at the door to the kitchen and pulled out a measuring tape.
“That’s an awfully small doorway,” he said.
“It’s an old house,” I said. “I think they make doorways bigger now.”
“I don’t think this is going to work, daddy,” said Mr. Tolliver’s son.
“Well,” said Mr. Tolliver, “There’s got to be a way.”
Mr. Tolliver maneuvered the refrigerator on to his dolly, hauled it up the driveway and porch steps, through the front door and into the dining room. Little beads of sweat popped out on his forehead.
Mr. Tolliver sighed and positioned the dolly near the door to the kitchen. The problem became apparent to all of us.
“I think we’ll need to take the kitchen door off its hinges,” Mr. Tolliver said.
I was paying Mr. Tolliver twenty dollars for the job. I had figured it would take an hour. Now it was obvious it was going to take a lot longer.
“I’m not sure I know how to take the door down,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” said Mr. Tolliver. “It’s part of the job.”
The door was tricky—it was mounted on a swivel base so it could swing open to either side. By the time Mr. Tolliver figured out the door, his son had grown restless.
“Can we go, daddy?” his son said.
“When the job’s done,” said Mr. Tolliver, calm as you please.
“When’s that gonna be?”
“When it’s done,” said Mr. Tolliver, his tone unchanged.
“Maybe you’d like to watch a movie?” Nora said to the boy.
We had one movie on VHS, the original Superman with Christopher Reeves. As I said, this was a long time ago.
Nora sat Mr. Tolliver’s son down to watch and Mr. Tolliver and I contemplated the refrigerator. It was too wide to fit through the doorway, even without the swinging door in place.
“I think we need to take the refrigerator door off,” said Mr. Tolliver.
“I’m sorry this is taking so much of your time,” I said. “I should have mentioned the door problem when you asked me.”
“No,” he said. “How could you have mentioned it if you didn’t know it would be a problem?”
By this time I was thinking how inadequate the $20 seemed for the job. Taking a refrigerator door off may have become simpler in the intervening years, but it wasn’t simple then. Mr. Tolliver hadn’t brought tools to do it. We had to improvise with what I had lying around, which wasn’t much.
At one point, after we’d spent a fruitless half hour trying to remove a screw with an irregular head, I said, “Well, that was for nothing.”
“No,” said Mr. Tolliver, “It wasn’t for nothing. We’re that much closer.”
His remark reminded me of Einstein, who in his later years published paper after paper detailing every fruitless path he took in his quest to find a unified field theory.
“Why publish these?” someone asked. “They’re all blind alleys.”
“So another poor fool won’t have to repeat them,” Einstein had said.
Finally, three hours after Mr. Tolliver had arrived, it was done, the refrigerator in position in the kitchen, all the doors replaced intact. Mr. Tolliver went to the den to collect his son.
“It’s time to go,” said Mr. Tolliver. “Do you want to thank the nice people for letting you watch the movie?”
“But I didn’t get to finish it,” the boy said.
The last twenty minutes of the tape remained.
“Well, you can thank them for the part of the movie you did get to watch.”
“Thank you,” said the boy.
I paid Mr. Tolliver $40. I wanted to give him more but he said it was too much.
“I learned a lot today,” he said.
He deposited his son in the truck and drove away. I never saw him again. I never learned his first name.
I often think of applying Mr. Tolliver’s technique on Nick when he’s upset about something, say, running out of screen time before a program is finished. But it doesn’t work.
When Nick is frustrated, Nora and I have learned to let him work it out on his own. Often he retreats to his room and we can hear him talking to himself behind the closed door. He usually emerges reconciled after a few minutes.
Whenever I take a blind alley I think of Mr. Tolliver. I think of saying to myself, “It wasn’t for nothing. I’m that much closer.” But it’s no good. That doesn’t work either. My general approach to blind alleys seems to be to say to myself, “You suck,” although I try to say it in a voice that nobody else can hear.
So I’ve never been able to indulge my fantasy of one day being like Mr. Tolliver. The best I can do is tell the story, and remind myself that there is at least one such person in the world. Because once, I met him.
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